July 07, 2009


From Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II's Theology of the Body (Jose Granados and Carl Anderson)

Together Toward God

To love another person is to affirm this person for his or her own sake. If we look at this affirmation more closely, though, it turns out to be something of a mystery. On the one hand, the beloved is a finite human being as we are. On the other hand, affirming the beloved for his or her own sake means ascribing an absolute value to a human person. How is it possible to pronounce an infinite yes to a finite being?
"How can it be done, Teresa, for you to stay in Andrew forever? How can it be done, Andrew, for you to stay in Teresa forever since man will not endure in man and man will not suffice?" (JS, 292) The Jeweler's question to Teresa and Andrew
It seems to leave us with a choice between one of two equally unacceptable options: Either we force the beloved into the role of an absolute, thereby cruelly subjecting him or her to an infinite demand no mere human being could ever live up to, or else we affirm the beloved only conditionally, thereby refusing him or her the absolute yes that true love requires. Vatican II suggests a way out of this dilemma in a passage from Gaudium et Spes that underscores man's special dignity as the only creature on earth that God has loved "for its own sake" (GS, 24). The dignity of the person is indeed absolute, Vatican II is telling us, but this dignity is itself based on the absolute Source of all dignity: God. Human dignity resolves the dilemma we've been struggling with here as follows: Since the beloved is God's image, we can affirm him or her with an absolute yes; on the other hand, since our yes derives its force from the beloved's relation to God, that affirmation does not turn the beloved into an idol but frees him or her from the crushing load of a false absolutization that injures the beloved's dignity instead of exalting it.

A corollary of what we've just said is that we have no business expecting another person to bear the whole burden of making us happy. Love's gravitational pull does not come to its final rest in our fellow creatures, but only in God. As Pope Benedict says, “[l]ove is indeed ecstasy, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God” (DCE, 6).

It would be totally mistaken to conclude from the pope's words, however, that we need to turn away from our fellow human beings in order to turn toward God. For it is precisely in other persons, and in our relationship to them, that we find the presence of God. We don't make our journey to God away from other persons, then, but together with them. We will develop this point further in our next chapter. A related implication of the foregoing is that all the aspects of personal existence we have considered thus far (sensuality, feelings, the affirmation of the person) direct us toward the ultimate goal of life, which is communion with God. We need not, in fact, we should not, ignore the lower dimensions of love, or despise our desires and feelings. Rather than rejecting them, we need to integrate them into love's basic movement toward God. When all of our affectivity, all of our bodily desires, are integrated into our affirmation of the value of the person, our sensuality and feelings aren't left behind but become part of our journey to the Absolute. It's precisely because it exists to be incorporated into such a journey that sexuality seems to promise an almost divine ecstasy of fulfillment. Saint Augustine, then, was right when he called the affections "the feet of our soul, by which we either walk toward God or away from him." Karol Wojtyla makes a similar point in Radiation of Fatherhood. Feelings, Wojtyla says, need to be bathed in the light of the person and transfigured by the radiance of God's love: But what emerges on the wave of the heart should not develop haphazardly, leading into blind alleys. "Every feeling, my child, must be permeated by light, so that one does not feel in darkness, but in the light, anew." (RF, 353)


As we saw in the previous chapter, the gift of Eve takes this quest to a new level: “This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam's act of naming Eve leads him deeper into his own identity. In naming her, he discovers his own name, too, as the wordplay in the Hebrew text of Genesis makes clear: “She will be called woman, because from man she has been taken.” Although Adam's encounter with Eve is a decisive high point in his quest, it is not the end of his search. Instead of diminishing his wonder, the presence of Eve intensifies it: “This at last!” Of all the things that arouse wonder, love is the most wondrous. Eve's presence is not so much like a harbor for a storm-tossed ship as it is like the parting of the storm clouds to reveal a wider, more mysterious horizon toward which the ship continues its journey. As Teresa says just after Andrew has asked for her hand in the Jeweler's Shop: "I remember that Andrew did not turn his eyes to me at once, but looked ahead for quite a while, as if gazing intently at the road before us." (JS, 24)

A new experience of wonder always prepares a new stage of our journey toward the Horizon of our existence, which is also the Source from which all wonder ultimately comes. "If you want to find the source, you have to go up, against the current. Break through, search, don't yield, you know it must be here somewhere. Where are you? … Source, where are you?" (RT, 9) This general rule is never truer than in the case of Adam's encounter with Eve, which ushers the two into a new world of wonder in which both of them continue their journey toward the Source hand in hand. In exploring this new stage of Adam's quest, John Paul II develops what he calls a “hermeneutics of the gift,” an interpretation of our experience of reality in light of the gift that this reality is. But what do we mean by “gift”? What does the idea of gift tell us about our relationship to the Absolute? Source, what is your name?


Rainer Maria Rilke illustrates the creative possibilities of the gift. One day Rilke and a friend happened to pass a church where an old woman was begging at the gate. Rilke's companion offered her some change, and the poor woman, accustomed to the mechanical gestures of the passersby, took the money without even raising her eyes. Rilke, like a true poet, bought her a rose and presented it to her when the two friends passed by the church again later that day. The woman's response to Rilke's apparently useless offer was totally different from her reaction to the change proffered by his friend: She raised her eyes and smiled and was not seen at the gate of the church for a whole week afterward. When Rilke's friend asked him what she had lived on during that week, Rilke answered without missing a beat: She has lived on the rose.

Rilke's rose was a unique and personal gift that touched the very dignity of the person who received it, reawakening her to life, whereas the change handed her mechanically by the passersby did not evoke any real human response in her soul. It goes without saying, of course, that gift giving is a risky enterprise. Since a gift exists to be received, every act of giving necessarily entails the risk of being refused. Notice that the refusal of the intended gift is not the rejection of a mere object; it extends, in a certain sense, to the very person of the giver. Conversely, if the gift is accepted, a new relationship comes into being that enriches both giver and receiver. As Saint Irenaeus of Lyons said, “he who offers is himself glorified in what he does offer, if his gift be accepted.” A gift is not just an object, but comes with it the person of the giver him- or herself. When we give a present, we are giving more than a piece of merchandise whose value can be measured by its market price.

To give a gift is always, in one way or another, to give oneself. A gift establishes or strengthens a relationship that touches, in different degrees, the personal core of both giver and receiver. Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed it this way:
"The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man's biography is conveyed in his gift."
Emerson's words suggest that there is no gift giving without reciprocity. A gift does not need to be repaid, but it does need to be accepted. It's important to stress that the receiver is not degraded by accepting the gift with a thank-you. On the contrary, by gratefully acknowledging the gift, the receiver becomes a co-creative partner in the new relationship that the gift establishes. This reciprocity enriches both the one who gives and the one who receives. As John Paul II says: “giving and accepting the gift interpenetrate in such a way that the very act of giving becomes acceptance, and acceptance transforms itself into giving” (TOB, 196).

Let's sum up what we've seen so far about gift giving. A gift, we've said, can only be given for free. The reason the gift has to be gratis is not that it's “cheap.” The point is that the gift has a kind of value that strictly speaking cannot be repaid. Why not? Because a gift expresses the unique worth of the person who gives it. What the giver seeks from the receiver, in fact, is not repayment, but a personal response. That's why the acceptance of the gift creates a relationship between giver and receiver, a relationship that enriches both of them at once. “Love,” observes Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, “consists in a mutual sharing of goods, for example, the lover gives to the beloved, and shares with the beloved, what he possesses … and vice versa the beloved shares with the lover.” Saint John of the Cross sums up this creative power of the gift when he writes: “Where there is no love, put love and there you will draw out love.”


Let's return to the story of Adam and Eve, which confirms what we have been saying about the gift. For it is Eve herself who elicits Adam's wonder and delight—and not primarily any thing that she might give to, or do for, him. Her very person is a gift to him. The acknowledgment that the beloved him- or herself is a gift is the heart of every true love. The English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us that what we love about the beloved isn't this or that quality he or she may have, but the very person he or she is:
"Do not say 'I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day'—
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so."
Real love doesn't stop with the “gentle voice” or the “sense of pleasant ease.” It goes further to acknowledge the deeper reality that such things betoken. That is, it receives the very existence of the beloved as a gift. Adam revels in the goodness of Eve's very existence, just as she revels in the goodness of his; it is as if they said to each other: “It is good that you exist and that we exist together.” It's only when lovers recognize this depth dimension in each other that their love becomes hardy enough to outlast changes in their feelings or alterations in their qualities and attributes. What genuine lovers care about most is not simply whether the beloved can give him- or herself freely to them in return. True lovers who have attained the maturity of love are able to recognize that the beloved him- or herself is a gift, prior to any of his or her actions. In short, true love is a response to the very fact that the beloved's existence is itself already a gift. Adam and Eve know deep in their bones that the call of love precedes anything that they could do to earn or produce it.

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